The impact of childhood adversity on violent crime in adolescence and early adulthood

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Bristol Medical School


Even though rates of overall crime have gone down in the UK over the last two decades, levels of serious violence in the past four years indicate a reversal of this trend. As a result, tackling serious violence has become a UK Government priority. One of the main ways to prevent youth involvement in violence is to identify and limit its early causes.

It is well-known that individuals who have had traumatic or stressful experiences during childhood (referred to as adverse childhood experiences or childhood adversity) - such as being a victim of child abuse or having a parent who suffers from a mental illness - are more likely to engage in violence during adolescence and early adulthood. However, it is not clear which adverse experiences contribute most to violence nor whether they have a greater or lesser impact if experienced at different ages. The aim of our project is to answer these questions.

We will address several research questions about the relationship between childhood adversity and serious violence during adolescence and early adulthood. We will consider a wide range of adversities including (but not restricted to) abuse (emotional, physical, and sexual), bullying, bereavement, and parental substance abuse, mental illness, and criminality. The choice of adversities to include in our analyses will be informed in part by the Ambassadors for Vulnerable Children and Young People on our steering group (these are young people who have experience of adversity in childhood, and who are employed by local authorities as ambassadors). We will identify whether any of these adversities have a particularly large impact on the risk of being involved in violent crime as a teenager or a young adult. Another goal is to determine whether there are critical periods during childhood where exposure to adversity - either in general or to one or more specific adversities - puts a child at particularly high risk. We also plan to investigate what role school attainment and attendance, mental health, and risk-taking behaviours (such as taking drugs) play in the relationship between childhood adversity and violence.

To fulfil the goals of our project, we will use data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), a world-leading data resource that has recorded extremely detailed information on the health, development and family circumstances of approximately 14,500 families living in the Bristol area since the early 1990s. Data collection started during pregnancy and has continued year on year ever since. The richness of this data resource makes it possible to answer questions that previous studies have been unable to address. We will link ALSPAC to data provided by Avon and Somerset police to generate the richest data set on violence and childhood adversity ever created in the UK, further enhancing this unique resource and enabling other researchers to investigate the causes and consequences of offending in new ways.

Our findings will shed light on how and when we can best intervene with children (or families) at risk of violence. Addressing these key questions has the potential to help reduce rates of violent crime and to provide a better understanding of how childhood experience contributes to violence that will benefit perpetrators and their families, victims, practitioners, policy makers and the general public.

Planned Impact

In this project we aim to identify which childhood adversities are the strongest predictors of involvement in serious violence during adolescence and early adulthood. Further, we intend to determine whether there are critical periods during childhood when exposure to adversity (or specific types of adversity) has a particularly negative impact and whether the duration of exposure to adversities plays an important role. We also aim to better understand the mediating role of school attainment, school absence, mental health, and adolescent risk behaviours such as smoking and drug use. Answering these questions will shed light on how best and when to intervene with children (and families) at risk of violence. We will have input from the Ambassadors for Vulnerable Children and Young People in interpreting, presenting and disseminating our findings.

We list below several audiences that will benefit from the outputs of our project.
1) Children experiencing adversities or at-risk of perpetrating violence, those caring for them (families, schools, social services) and the wider public: our research is primarily aimed at helping children who experience adversities. Our goal is to better understand the pathways between childhood adversity and involvement in serious violent crime. By identifying those children at greater risk, our project has the potential to influence decisions on how best to support these children. In the long term this could reduce the burden of violent harm perpetrated and experienced by these vulnerable individuals. It is important to note that exposure to childhood adversities has been shown to have many other negative consequences, including poorer educational as well as health/health-related outcomes (32,33). Thus, interventions aimed at reducing exposure to adversity are likely to have many additional benefits, both for the individuals themselves and for wider society.
2) Policy makers involved in developing and/or commissioning interventions aimed at reducing rates of serious violent crime. As mentioned above, our findings will help to optimise the timing and nature of intervention with at-risk young people. The Youth Endowment Fund (YEF) will distribute £200m in funding to practitioner organisations and research organisations in an effort to make a substantial breakthrough in identifying what works to prevent youth violence and improve the lives of 10-14 year olds. By refining the understanding of the adversity-offending pathway and the contribution of other experiences and environments, our research will provide the evidence base for the YEF, in turn advancing early intervention initiatives and refining the practice of youth work with statutory and voluntary sector organisations.
3) The scientific community (see Academic Beneficiaries) will benefit from the insights the project yields and the added capacity for longitudinal research into childhood and adolescent behaviour that our data linkage will enable.
4) Government and tax payers: violence in England and Wales cost the tax payer approximately £38bn in 2015/16 (health, social and economic costs) (34). In 2019, the Government announced a £100 million "Serious Violence Fund" of which around a third will support multi-agency violence reduction units aimed at tackling violent crime and its causes and a £200m Youth Endowment Fund that will focus on early intervention to prevent violence. Driven by our multi-disciplinary impact activities, our research has the potential to reshape the understanding of adverse childhood experiences and to result in temporally-tailored and more effective interventions to reduce this harmful and expensive behaviour.


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